Halldór K Laxness

Independent People

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Independent People Summary

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Winner of the Nobel Prize in literature, Icelandic author Halldór Laxness’ novel, Independent People (published in two parts in 1934 and 1935), examines self-reliance through a lens of capitalist economics and an unforgiving natural environment.

Laxness recounts Icelandic history from its first settlement, to its invasion by Norsemen and subsequent cursing, telling the story of Gunnvor, a witch who terrified the area and craved human blood. When her crimes were exposed, Gunnvor was beheaded, but became even worse in death, haunting the land. She cursed the land known as Winterhouses.

In the present day (the early twentieth century), Bjartur has finally saved enough money from his work for Bailiff Jon to purchase the small farm Winterhouses, albeit with a hefty mortgage. Bjartur, proud of his accomplishment, renames it Summerhouses. The farm is not particularly fertile, and the house is a rough thing with sod walls and a metal roof, but Bjartur rebuilds it, believing he can live there independently, raising sheep and never working for another person again.

Bjartur marries Rosa, a woman whom he had worked alongside at the Bailiff’s. Strong but unattractive, she is unhappy when she sees her new home. Bjartur discovers she is already pregnant and suspects the father is Bailiff Jon’s son, Ingolfur. The marriage becomes rapidly unhappy. One day, Bjartur is walking when he sees a magnificent buck reindeer. He pursues the creature, jumping onto its back in an attempt to capture it, but the reindeer is immensely strong and begins running, crashing into the river and heading downstream while Bjartur hangs on for dear life. Frozen and wet, he holes up in an empty farm to recover.

When Bjartur returns home after a few days, he finds Rosa has died during childbirth. The baby is alive, however, and Bjartur adopts her as his own, naming her Asta Sollilja. The Bailiff sends Finna, a middle-aged woman to help care for the girl, and Bjartur marries her out of convenience. Her mother, Hallbera, moves in with them.

Finna and Bjartur live as a married couple, and Finna is regularly pregnant. Most of her pregnancies are stillborn, but three more children survive: Helgi, Gvendur, and Nonni. Bjartur barely makes ends meet on the farm, but he is proud to keep the farm free from debt. As a result, however, everything is run-down and in ill repair. The beds are filthy and filled with bugs. Ingolfur, who has many schemes to supposedly improve the lives of the poor, insists that Bjartur needs a cow on his farm, but Bjartur refuses. When Ingolfur arranges to have a cow donated to the family, however, Bjartur insists on paying for it to maintain his image as an independent man.

A stranger arrives from the south, requesting permission to hunt on the land, which Bjartur grants. Asta falls in love with the man, but she is an awkward, shy young girl, and he does not really notice her. He disappears every night on mysterious business, which Bjartur thinks he understands when the Bailiff’s daughter suddenly departs her home under mysterious circumstances.

Asta and Bjartur become closer. After Helgi and Finna both pass away, Bjartur teaches Asta poetry in lieu of sending her to school, and allows her to accompany him on his annual trip into town for supplies. Asta becomes pregnant, and although he still has great affection for her, he turns cold toward her in disapproval. She moves away.

World War I erupts, and suddenly Bjartur’s fortunes seem to change as the price of wool and mutton soar. Amazed at the wealth he acquires, Bjartur is moved to go into debt for the first time in his life in order to build a “proper” house on the farm. Bjartur’s brother invites Gvendur to come to America; Bjartur argues against it but does not forbid it, and Gvendur goes. Bjartur’s finances take a turn for the worse; he cannot keep up the payments on his new mortgage, and he loses Summerhouses. Bjartur refuses to be depressed about this turn of events, however, and rents a small farm to start over.

Bjartur writes a poem in honor of Asta. Asta returns, very ill. Bjartur welcomes her back and the novel ends with him helping her come home with him to his tiny farm. Bjartur is unaware of the damage his insistence on independence has done to everyone around him as well as himself; he remains fiercely proud of his self-reliance and the fact that he owes nothing to any other person, despite the fact that this isolation has directly damaged his life.